Autism was formally recognized by the medical community in the first half of the twentieth century. Almost 100 years later, a small but growing literature has reported sex differences in the behavioral expression of autism. Recent research has also begun to explore the internal experiences of individuals with autism, including social and emotional insight. The current study examines sex differences in language-based markers of social and emotional insight in girls and boys with autism and non-autistic peers during semi-structured clinical interviews. Sixty-four participants aged 5 to 17 years were individually matched on chronological age and full-scale IQ to form four groups: autistic girls, autistic boys, non-autistic girls, and non-autistic boys. Transcribed interviews were scored using four scales that index aspects of social and emotional insight. Results revealed the main effects of diagnosis, such that youth with autism exhibited lower insight than non-autistic youth on scales indexing social cognition and object relations, emotional investment, and social causality. With regards to sex differences, across diagnoses, girls were rated higher than boys on the social cognition and object relations, emotional investment, and social causality scales. Examined within each diagnosis separately, clear sex differences emerged: both autistic and non-autistic girls demonstrated better social cognition and understanding of social causality than boys in their respective diagnostic groups. No within-diagnosis sex differences were found on the emotional insight scales, however. These results suggest that relatively enhanced social cognition and understanding of social causality in girls may be a population-level sex difference that is preserved in autism, despite the core social challenges that characterize this condition. The current findings reveal critical new information about insight into social and emotional thinking and relationships in autistic girls versus boys that have important implications for improving identification and designing effective interventions.
© 2023. The Author(s).